Those who are acquainted with my past know that I was given a primer on the deviance of adults when I was still a small child.
I was three-and-a-half-years-old when I first saw a sexual act played out in front of me. Quirina, a woman who worked the streets of Calcinara and masqueraded as my caretaker, often took me along on her assignments around our impoverished district of Northern Italy’s Pavia. Basements and flats ripe with decay, where I was shuttered into dimly-lit corners and told to close my eyes. The nudity I saw when I peeked them open stirred something instinctual inside me: I knew these actions were lewd and inappropriate, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to articulate why. It soon became a part of my daily existence, as normal as making up my tiny bed in the morning, or playing in the dirt of our apartment’s courtyard before dusk.
I was four when my mother—a vivacious beauty with a penchant for recklessness—started taking me with her to bars. She’d sit me on a stool, the air around me dense with cigarette smoke, and disappear into the back of the saloon. There, she’d play poker for hours, emerging from the depths of the room at closing time, her eyes cashed-out, her hands shaking.
I was five when a deeply disturbed but charismatic fourteen-year-old girl in our building began sexually abusing me. Again, I didn’t have a name for what went on behind the closed door of her room, where she’d slap a hand across my mouth, lest I scream. I ran to a nearby church one day, and confessed sins I never committed to a cloaked, confused priest. I searched for the right words when he asked me to clarify why I was so overwhelmed with guilt. I didn’t have them.
I was six when my father—a slippery and elusive figure who did his best to avoid me when I was a child—began taking me with him on his dates with various women. The majority of our monthly visits were spent in the confines of his Alfa Romeo—he in the front seat, making out with his newest girlfriend, me in the back, my head tucked against the damp window, pretending to sleep.
Those who know about my upbringing occasionally ask how I’ve managed to find stability and happiness after enduring so much turbulence at such a young age. How have I healed from these wounds? How have I made peace with the damage caused by the very people who were supposed to take care of me?
Therapy has been an essential part of my growth and recovery, but the answers lie within the power of resilience, which all children naturally possess.
We are born whole. We are born with innate knowledge, an unshakable desire to survive, and a solid grasp on happiness. We are also born with a sense of right and wrong; we are born with the ability to intuit danger. We haven’t yet let the depravity around us to chip away at our true selves.
Moreover, children are often more resilient than adults because they are closer to their Creator, whose love and wisdom is abundant and readily accessible to them. They tap into that source with ease, no matter their reality. If they are given only the most basic requirements to their needs—food, shelter, warmth, and affection—they are able to cope, even thrive, in the harshest of circumstances.
This notion became more apparent to me when I visited several remote villages in Kenya. Children, often emaciated, ran barefoot through mud and cow dung. They were covered in flies, clad in torn clothes. They entertained themselves with sticks. They lived in huts with no running water or electricity. To the spoiled observer who is blissfully accustomed to modern amenities, they would seem desperate and in need of more—real toys, real clothes, shoes, a room of their own—but their eyes brimmed with pure, unadulterated joy. Their smiles were whole and infectious. And I understood this delight they had on a visceral level, as I too had grown up with very little. I was given nutrition, a roof over my head, love from deviant adults in doses both big and small. Everything else I needed was provided by God.
Over time, we become seduced by material possessions. We become competitive. Fear and doubt create self-hatred. We lose touch with our Creator, and predicaments that we were able to traverse through effortlessly as children become impossible to navigate.
Where do we end up? Where does the inner child we carry around with us land? It is ultimately up to us. Even if our childhoods were marred by dysfunction, we have the ability to locate the children within us. We have the ability to listen to them. We have the facility to find the confidence that was instilled in us before we left the womb. We have the wherewithal to shun those debilitating inner voices that tells us we are inferior, inadequate, and powerless. It’s a matter of opening our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our minds. It’s a matter of getting out of the corner, opening the door, stepping off the stool, and out of the backseat and into the front—where we must take the wheel, and drive.
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